Imitating the Passion of Jesus
A decade ago on the opening night of the “Passion of the Christ” I stood in line outside the theatre with a ticket in my hand and trepidation in my heart. Amidst those that had pre-screened the movie and declared it emotively brilliant, there had been many others who had criticised the movie’s imagery as being too graphic and intense. I was genuinely worried that I would be overwhelmed with the movie’s portrayals and expressed these concerns to my friend. He urged me not to focus too much upon the great suffering which Jesus endured during His passion, but to instead keep mindful of the infinite love which impelled Him to take up the cross. The story which he then recounted to me remains one of my favourite declarations of God’s love for humanity.
Julian of Norwich was a medieval English mystic. Among the many ecstasies she experienced were a series of visions in which she witnessed Christ’s final agony on the cross. The face of Jesus was bloody, torn and ravaged, distended and disfigured to such a degree that He was scarcely recognizable. As she gazed upon our suffering Saviour and contemplated His agony, He suddenly opened his eyes and looked upon her:
Our Lord: Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you?
Julian: Yes, good Lord, all my thanks to you; yes, good Lord, blessed may you be.
The Lord: If you are satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered my Passion for you; and if I could suffer more, I should suffer more.
God’s suffering for our sins, the laying down of His life, constitutes the greatest sacrifice of time memorial and eternal. One can not but be satisfied, comforted, by so loving a God. Yet Jesus’ love for us is divinely without limit. Though He suffered to the full extent permitted by His human nature, He desired to manifest His love even further: “if I could suffer more, I should suffer more.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux similarly expresses God’s superabundant passion for the good of man:
“How great was this love! If Christ the Son of the living God had as many parts of His body as there are stars in the firmament of heaven, and if each of these parts had its own body, Christ would have exposed all of them to the Passion, rather that leave a single soul unredeemed from the clutches of the devil. O what mercy, and how great is the mercy of God!”
“Now the grace of our Lord hath abounded exceedingly with faith and love, which is in Christ Jesus”, writes St. Paul. (1 Timothy 1:15 – DRB) God is not satisfied with mere satisfaction, but desires to do all good in excess. In explaining the writings of Peter Lombard, Richard Viladesau wrote in “The Beauty of the Cross”, “[b]y His passion and death, Christ merited something more than He had merited previously for Himself: namely, our salvation. He could not gain any higher degree of merit than He had simply by His virtuous life; but in the passion Christ obtained more merit – namely, for us. He did so by making himself, in death, a sacrificial offering for our liberation.”
In merit, grace and love – in all virtue – God desires more and He desires us to desire more. In reflection of the love shown on the cross, our service must be passionate. Passion for holiness is virtuous and pleasing to God. Writing on passion in the Summa, Aquinas addresses the question of whether moral virtue can exist without passion:
“If we take the passions as being inordinate emotions, as the Stoics did, it is evident that in this sense perfect virtue is without the passions. But if by passions we understand any movement of the sensitive appetite, it is plain that moral virtues, which are about the passions as about their proper matter, cannot be without passions. The reason for this is that otherwise it would follow that moral virtue makes the sensitive appetite altogether idle: whereas it is not the function of virtue to deprive the powers subordinate to reason of their proper activities, but to make them execute the commands of reason, by exercising their proper acts. Wherefore just as virtue directs the bodily limbs to their due external acts, so does it direct the sensitive appetite to its proper regulated movements.
Those moral virtues, however, which are not about the passions, but about operations, can be without passions. Such a virtue is justice: because it applies the will to its proper act, which is not a passion. Nevertheless, joy results from the act of justice; at least in the will, in which case it is not a passion. And if this joy be increased through the perfection of justice, it will overflow into the sensitive appetite; in so far as the lower powers follow the movement of the higher, as stated above (17, 7; 24, 3). Wherefore by reason of this kind of overflow, the more perfect a virtue is, the more does it cause passion.”
Jesus came that me have life and have it abundantly (cf. John 10:10). Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Then love more. Pursue the greater glory of God with this passion and your cup will overflow.